John Hanson

John Hanson

Hanson, John, 1715-83, first "President of the United States in Congress Assembled," b. Charles co., Maryland. He served in the Maryland provincial legislature, was active in the patriot cause in the Revolution, and was (1780-82) a member of the Continental Congress. Since he was the first President to serve the one-year term (1781-82), under the Articles of Confederation, Hanson is sometimes referred to as the first President of the United States. His duties were, however, merely those of a presiding officer and bore no relation to the duties of the President under the Constitution.

See biography by S. W. Smith (1932).

John Hanson (14 April, 1715 November 22, 1783) was a delegate to the United States in Congress Assembled from Maryland. Because he was the first President of Congress from Maryland to serve under a fully ratified Articles of Confederation (Maryland did not complete the process and sign until March 1, 1781), John Hanson has been called the First President of the United States in Congress Assembled. He did serve a full one-year term, November 5, 1781 to November 4, 1782, as President of the United States in Congress Assembled under the Articles of Confederation.

Hanson is one of the most enigmatic figures in US history. He is frequently mentioned in connection with the claim that he was the first President, but fewer facts are clear about his life and accomplishments than is the case with most of his contemporaries. One of the difficulties this caused was that several writers in the 19th century filled in the blanks with fiction. For various reasons, Hanson has been the subject of a large number of misconceptions or misrepresentations.

Personal life

John was the third generation of his family to live in Maryland. Named after his grandfather John, who came from England, he was born near Port Tobacco in Charles County, Maryland. John's parents were Samuel (1684-1740) and Elizabeth Story Hanson (1689-1764) who owned a farm there. John had no extended formal education while growing up in Maryland, but he read broadly in both English and Latin. He followed the family tradition as a planter, extending and improving his holdings.

In 1744 he married Jane Contee (born 1728) in Annapolis. They would remain together until his death, and had a large family. Jane survived her husband, dying on March 21, 1812 in Frederick County. Their children included:

  • Catherine (1744-1767) married Philip Alexander.
  • Jane (1747-1781) married Dr. Philip Thomas and moved to Frederick County.
  • Peter (1748-1776) enlisted in the Continental Army. In November of 1776 he was stationed at Fort Washington; killed in action while defending Fort Washington.
  • Alexander (1749-1806), known as Alexander Contee Hanson, Sr., became a lawyer and a judge. His son, Alexander Contee Hanson became a US Senator.
  • The twins, John and Elizabeth (1751-1753), died as infants.
  • Grace (1762-1763) died as an infant.
  • A second John (1753-1760) died in childhood.
  • Samuel (1756-1781), known as Dr. Samuel Harrison Hanson, became a physician.

John died at his nephew's plantation at Oxon Hill in Prince George's County, Maryland on November 22, 1783 (some sources say November 15). He is buried in a private family graveyard there.

Political career

John Hanson was first elected to represent Charles County in the colonial assembly in 1757. He also served as their representative in 1758-1763, 1765, 1766, 1768-1769. At various times he held several positions in local government, including that of deputy land surveyor and treasurer of Frederick County.

When the colonial assembly was dismissed or prorogued in 1774, Hanson became a representative in the Annapolis Convention which replaced it as a revolutionary government. Over the next several sessions of that assembly, he gained a reputation as an outspoken supporter of moves towards revolution. His speeches contributed to Maryland's decision to support rebels engaged in the Siege of Boston.

In December of 1779, the Maryland House of Delegates named John Hanson as one of its delegates to the Continental Congress. He began those duties when he took his seat in Philadelphia on June 14, 1780, serving until 1782. While Hanson was in Congress, the Articles of Confederation were at last ratified by all the states. When the Congress received notice of this on March 1, 1781, he joined Daniel Carroll in endorsing them for Maryland.

President of the United States in Congress Assembled

Before the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, the states operated under the direction of the Continental Congress, although they remained in principle a confederation of independent states. Even after the adoption of the Articles of Confederation, there was no executive branch. Therefore the President of the Continental Congress, which was a position similar to a Prime Minister, was the highest authority; under the Articles, the position adopted the title President of the United States in Congress Assembled, and Hanson was the first presiding officer of the Congress to use that title when dealing with foreign governments, diplomats, or treaties. Congress had little authority beyond those powers, which had been specifically delegated to it by the states, and its weakness during this period led directly to a decline in influence and the 1787 Constitution, with a more robust federal model.

Hanson's term as President of the United States in Congress Assembled, during this critical formation period, did have longstanding influence.

Among the accomplishments of Hanson's presidency of Congress:

  • Delivered the official Thanks of Congress to George Washington for his victory at Yorktown
  • Commended Gen. Lafayette and thanked France for his services
  • Pressed states to keep up their commitments to sending delegates to Congress, which was often short of a quorum
  • Passed legislation for the Bank of North America, the first central bank
  • Appointed a Secretary of the United States to assist in correspondence and record-keeping
  • Granted Gen. Washington broad powers to negotiate prisoner exchanges with Britain; Washington immediately worked out a trade of Gen. Cornwallis for Henry Laurens, the first president of the Continental Congress
  • Established the United States Mint
  • Established the Presidential Seal, and still used by all Presidents on official documents and other related items.
  • Established the predecessor agency of the State Department
  • Proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving holiday
  • Created the position of Chairman of Congress, a predecessor of the vice-presidency
  • Negotiated a peace treaty with Britain
  • Settled a dispute between Connecticut and Pennsylvania, with Hanson acting as an equivalent of Chief Justice
  • Called for the first national census

First President claim

The origin of the claim that Hanson is the forgotten first President stems from a 1932 book by Seymour Wemyss Smith titled John Hanson - Our First President. Nevertheless, officially Hanson was the third presiding officer of the Congress of the United States, and he considered himself a successor to the first two men to hold the office, Samuel Huntington and Thomas McKean, who themselves were successors to prior Presidents of the Second Continental Congress. Nor was the office an executive position like the office of President that was created under the Constitution; and unlike the office of President created under the Constitution, the Presidents under the Articles of Confederation were not commander in chief. (The Second Continental Congress had already, in 1775, years before the Articles of Confederation, appointed George Washington commander of the combined militias of the colonies; Washington continued to serve as commander after the Articles of Confederation took effect, until the Revolutionary War had ended.)

Hanson was, however, the first to serve a full one-year term, and the first to formally use the title President of the United States in Congress Assembled. Most importantly, Hanson was the first President elected by the 13 Original States' Delegates serving under the Articles of Confederation. Both Presidents Huntington and McKean were elected to the Presidency by delegates who took office under the Articles of Association that operated the Continental Congress.

Additionally, Hanson was also the first person to be chosen to the office of President of the United States in Congress Assembled after the British surrender at Yorktown in America's Revolutionary War. This, coupled with his being chosen the first President by the first delegates elected under the Articles of Confederation, is very likely one of the prime reasons some have viewed Hanson as being the first President rather than Samuel Huntington (#1 who already held the office of Continental Congress President when the Articles were adopted) and Thomas McKean (#2 was the first to begin the office pursuant to a new election held under the Articles, but prior to the surrender of the British). It should be noted that that Samuel Johnson of North Carolina was elected to President of United States in Congress Assembled between Huntington and McKean but refused to accept the office of the presidency.


Maryland law specifies that "the Governor annually shall proclaim April 13 as John Hanson's birthday and dedicate that day to the statesman. However, this does not reflect Hanson's actual birthday, which in the Gregorian Calendar is 14 April. Also, the John Hanson Highway is named in his honor. There are also middle schools located in Oxon Hill, Maryland and Waldorf, Maryland named after the statesman.

In 1903 the state of Maryland donated a bronze statue by Richard E. Brooks to the United States Capitol's National Statuary Hall Collection. It is currently located on the 2nd floor of the Senate connecting corridor. A maquette of the Hanson statue by the sculptor Richard E. Brooks resides on the President's dais in the Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House.


Further reading

  • Einstein's Refrigerator ISBN 0-7407-1419-8 by Steve Silverman, pp. 101-104
  • Dictionary of American Biography Scribner's 1964 edition

External links

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